Slipping through the Cracks
Like everyone, my jaw dropped when the McCain campaign announced Sarah Palin as its choice for VP. Jaws dropped for different reasons. Mine dropped because of the heartsick feeling that Hilary Clinton's 18,000 cracks might be used to open the way for the progeny of Phyllis Schlafly to slide through.
Palin's stance against reproductive rights is the most aggregious of her anti-feminist policies. Her advocacy of "abstinence-only education" is downright dangerous. In 2006, the latest year for which statistics are available, teen pregnancy rates were on the rise for the first time since 1991 [http://www.webmd.com/news], and birth rates for this age group rose as well [http://www.cdc.gov/]. Among all ages of women, the percentage of births wanted at conception dropped an average of 5-7% between 1996 and 2003. These percentages do not seem large, but they represent hundreds of thousands of women and babies. Anecdotally, in my extended family, there have been unwed pregnancies resulting in birth for three women age 15-17 in the last year. These girls say that "all their friends are doing it". Look around you - is this happening in your community?
Although I respect Barack Obama's contention that families and children are "off limits", policy positions are most certainly not. The fact that the failure of Palin's policy position on abstinence-only education shows up in her own family can hardly be ignored in this context. It speaks, not only to policy, but to character. Palin's "support" of her unwed daughter's choice to carry an accidental pregnancy to term, as well as the concomitant the shotgun wedding, demonstrate a set of choices and actions that I find abhorrent, and I think it's important to say so. It's not OK for teenage girls to get pregnant because the form of sex education they receive is ineffective, it's not OK for those girls to be religion-ed into giving birth, and it's not OK for the children to be raised by children.
Let's look at some of the risks to teen mothers. The following conclusions emerged from a study by the Public Health Institute Center for Research on Adolescent Health and Development [http://www.cde.ca.gov/].*
"Adolescents who become mothers tend to exhibit poorer psychological functioning, lower levels of educational attainment and high school completion, more single parenthood, and less stable employment than those with similar background who postpone childbirth." ( Constantine, N., and Nevarez, C., p. 2)
"70% of teen mothers drop out of high school, making pregnancy the primary reason young women drop out early. Only 30% of teen mothers complete high school by age 30, compared to 76% of women who delay parenthood until age 21 or older." (Berglas, N., Brindis, C., and Cohen, J., p. 24)
"Although teen mothers who stay in school are just as likely to graduate as non-mothers, those who drop out before or shortly after childbirth are only half as likely to return to school and graduate as are non-mother dropouts." (Constantine, N., and Nevarez, C., p.2)
"Teen mothers spend more of their parenting years as single mothers than do older mothers, and they have higher divorce rates." (Constantine, N., and Nevarez, C., p. 3)
Why do pregnant teens hesitate to terminate pregnancies? The socially conservative Brookings Institution concludes:
"As teen pregnancy and childbearing have become more common, they have also become more acceptable, or at least less stigmatized." [http://www.brookings.edu]
Less stigmatized, yes, and supported by the religious right as the next best thing to their failed approach to sex education. The story of Sarah Palin's daughter will, whether we like it or not, serve as an exemplar to teen women. The daughter of the vice-president - or perhaps even of the president, should she be called upon to replace McCain - will inevitably make teen pregnancy and teen motherhood "more acceptable" to young women who look to the White House for models of choice and action.
I loathe Palin's anti-environmentalism and her support for the symbolically potent but logically idiotic idea that drilling for oil and gas in our oceans and wildlife preserves will make a dent in our dependency on foreign oil. That's like telling a nation of diabetics, we'll get you some insulin eventually, but meanwhile, let's try and make some more doughnuts. I'm disgusted by her corrupt behavior in Alaska, well-documented by the mainstream press. I'm sickened by her anti-feminist agenda and its potentially disastrous consequences for the women and girls of America. I'm appalled by the lack of judgment McCain demonstrated in choosing her. "If these guys are the good ones," to quote Bruce Hornsby, "I don't want to know the bad."
But the thing I fear most is that more than half of the voters in this country of ours are ignorant and short-sighted enough to go for it. It's not the outcome of the election that I fear so much as the people who may put Palin and McCain in the White House. We've heard a lot of talk from these folks about patriotism, but not much about citizenship. Citizenship depends upon a level of criticality and responsibility that the majority of Americans may no longer possess. We can blame the consumerist culture that has eroded our judgment just as it has fattened up our bodies and our landfills over the last half century. But blame will be beside the point if we demonstrate ourselves to be a nation of people who can no longer reason - a nation of people who no longer know how to be citizens, and who are therefore incapable of envisioning, electing, or demanding good government.
*Sources: Constantine, N., and Nevarez, C., No Time for Complacency: Teen Births in California, Public Health Institute, March 2003. Berglas, N., Brindis, C., and Cohen, J., Adolescent Pregnancy and Childbearing in California (PDF), California State Library Foundation, June 2003.